Martinsville a learning experience for younger drivers

Updated: April 15, 2004, 5:43 PM ET
By Bill Whitehead | Scripps Howard News Service

Jeff Gordon
After a handful of snoozer races -- a couple which seemed better than they were thanks to dramatic finishes -- the Nextel Cup Series will begin a marvelous, seductive stock-car dance Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, the circuit's oldest track. That dance is the frantic, side-by-side mobile parking lot that occurs when 43 drivers want the same piece of property -- the lead -- at the half-mile track.

In the last two years, the speedway's surface was ground down, creating two separate racing lanes that made the sliver of groove much wider and allows more passing. That means the racing might be more exciting than ever, but it won't be any less demanding.

And if racing at Martinsville is some kind of dance, then quite a few drivers are seeking a partner to cut the rug with and showcase their new moves.

"One thing I've learned about Martinsville is that it's really hard to tell someone how to drive it," explained Jeff Gordon in January, just three months after completing a 2003 sweep at Martinsville. "Jimmie (Johnson) followed me in the race and he started working on his lines. Sometimes it just takes that and following a guy around there."

Johnson proved how quick a study he was by finishing second to Gordon last October, and now the Hendrick Motorsports camp hopes rookie Brian Vickers can be the next hotshoe at the slightly-banked bullring. The 20-year-old driver honed his skills on similar tracks in his native North Carolina -- and even turned a few laps at Martinsville in the Allison Legacy Series and in its famous late model race.

"I'll definitely be seeking his advice," Vickers said of Gordon. He added of Johnson, who helped Vickers during their tests there last week, "A lot of guys have to run a (rev) chip to keep from driving into the corner too deep, and we didn't have to do that. Jimmie was telling me what chip they run, but Jimmie's never raced any tracks like that."

Rookie Brendan Gaughan has been tutored this year by past Martinsville winner Buddy Baker, and the Dodge driver said it has been a learning experience. "I've been telling Buddy the past two weeks how much I didn't like short tracks, and he's been growling back at me. He's been telling me, 'I'm gonna make you love Martinsville.' But Martinsville is one track that I like in the respect that you have to drive the heck out of it."

Other rookies should play a factor Sunday, too. Kasey Kahne has been the hottest driver in the freshman class, while Scott Wimmer finished third in the Daytona 500. Johnny Sauter, meanwhile, cut his teeth by winning numerous races in the American Speed Association on speedways similar to Martinsville, and Scott Riggs won a 2001 truck race there.

Drivers like Gordon and Rusty Wallace don't need help. They're the ones who have all the dance moves at Martinsville and don't require an Arthur Murray lesson to tweak their twist or sharpen their shag.

But newcomers like Vickers and Gaughan can pick up Martinsville's maddening pace so much easier when they have a graceful partner leading the way.